The Question of Disparate Speech Impact in the Court’s Upcoming McCullen v. Coakley Case

Posted in: Constitutional Law

Today we analyze a very intriguing issue raised by a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month, McCullen v. Coakley, in which the plaintiffs challenge a Massachusetts law limiting pedestrian traffic near abortion clinics.  The statute in question makes it a crime to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to” a reproductive rights clinic within 35 feet of “any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway” of the facility.  The statute exempts from this prohibition persons who are entering or leaving the facility, employees or agents of the facility acting within the scope of their employment, emergency and utility personnel doing their jobs, and people who are using the sidewalk or public way to reach a destination other than the facility.  The law’s challengers—individuals who seek to communicate with women who may, at that place and moment, be contemplating abortion—allege that the law violates the First Amendment.  The challengers lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in June the Supreme Court granted review.

The case raises many important constitutional issues.  Indeed, this is not the first time the Supreme Court has agreed to review, under the First Amendment, judicial or legislative attempts to regulate protest activity taking place outside medical facilities and abortion clinics, and among the questions presented in McCullen is whether the Court should overrule Hill v. Colorado, one of its important earlier cases relating to these matters.

Content/Viewpoint Based vs. Content-Neutral:  A Crucial Distinction

In the space below, we do not attempt to address all the significant constitutional issues the McCullen case presents.  Instead, we limit ourselves to the relatively confined question of whether a law like this one should be characterized as a “content-neutral” regulation of the “time, place or manner” of speech or conduct, or instead whether the law should be viewed as one that discriminates on the basis of the content or viewpoint of speech (or speakers).

This question is profoundly important, because under well-established First Amendment doctrines, if a law is content- or viewpoint-based, it is subject to the strictest judicial scrutiny, and will almost always be struck down. Content-neutral regulations of speech, by contrast, are reviewed under a more lenient, intermediate level of review and are often, although not always, upheld.  (We take no position in this column on how the Massachusetts law in question, or other situations we examine, should fare under the intermediate scrutiny test.)

Usually the Court determines whether a law is content- or viewpoint-based by looking at how the law is written.  For example, a law that prohibits all picketing in an area but exempts labor picketing is content-based, because the exemption from the regulation is defined on the face of the statute in terms of a particular topic or subject matter of speech.  Similarly, a law that explicitly makes it a crime to burn a flag “in order to show contempt” for it, but that does not prohibit burning as a means of respectfully disposing of a damaged flag, would be viewpoint-based. These laws would be subject to very high scrutiny.

Formal Neutrality and Disparate or Discriminatory Effect

The plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case would have to concede that the law they are challenging does not, as a formal matter, single out or even mention any identifiable speaker or particular subject or viewpoint of speech. The plaintiffs argue, however, that this law should be understood as a content- or viewpoint-discriminatory regulation because by restricting speech in a particular place, in front of reproductive health clinics, the state is burdening only one side of a debate. They contend that although the law may be neutral on its face, it is discriminatory in its effect.  And this discriminatory or disparate impact should lead courts to be skeptical of the law and strike it down for that reason.

In making their argument, the plaintiffs rely on the commonsense fact that speech in front of reproductive health clinics is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, speech that is opposed to abortion.  As their brief argues:  “Massachusetts has . . . taken care to frame an Act that as a practical matter affects speech on only one issue—and, indeed, on only one side of that issue.  The Act’s lack of generality or neutrality is demonstrated both by the specific locations at which it applies and by the specific speakers whom it affects.” (Some of the amicus briefs in favor of the challengers also argue that the law should be viewed skeptically because the legislature’s actual motive was problematic, but we defer discussion of so-called motive analysis under the First Amendment to another day, focusing here on whether the disparate effect of a law justifies treating it as a disfavored content- or viewpoint-based law.)

We do not deny that a law that singles out particular places for speech restrictions may often have a disparate effect on speech and debate.  People on one side of a debate often use particular places to express their message much more frequently and aggressively than do people on the other side(s) of the same debate.  But allowing courts to look behind the actual content of the statute and determine what standard of review to apply based on disproportionate effect could radically undermine settled doctrine, require the implicit overruling of many judicial decisions, and lead to the invalidation of laws that are already on the books, or that are likely to be enacted without controversy, because they are considered to be content-neutral regulations.

How Disparate Effect Analysis Would Disrupt the Case Law and Statutory Landscapes

The reality is that many of what today are generally considered to be content-neutral speech regulations were adopted in response to a problems created by identifiable classes of speakers with distinct messages or viewpoints. Under current law, we respond to that reality by requiring a statute to apply to all would-be speakers, not just those whose speech activity raised the legislature’s consciousness about the need for regulation. Thus, a limitation on residential picketing, or a buffer zone in front of medical clinics, may be created in response to anti-abortion protests, but the laws responding to this problem must, as a formal matter, apply to labor picketing and other protests as well.   If the Court were to go beyond this current insistence on formal content- and viewpoint-neutrality, and begin subjecting all laws that have predictable disparate effects to the strict scrutiny that applies to content- and viewpoint-based laws, then  significant past Court cases  might require reconsideration.

For example, in the seminal case of United States v. O’Brien, the Court upheld a law that made it a crime to destroy government-issued draft cards, even if the cards were burned for expressive purposes as a form of political protest.  Could anyone doubt that the overwhelming majority of people who destroyed draft cards (and who were thus subject to the law) did so in order to express a particular anti-draft, anti-war, or anti-government point of view?  Or take Frisby v. Shultz, a case in which the Court upheld a ban on residential picketing, as applied to protesters who wanted to picket outside an abortion doctor’s home.  Certainly, this ban had meaningful effect only on people expressing critical messages in front of a resident’s home; people don’t tend to picket in front of your house if they like what you’re doing. Honesty compels the acknowledgement that the ban on residential picketing was prompted by, and in the real world most directly affected, anti-abortion activists.

Also, a disparate effect analysis might very well require the invalidation of other laws that current doctrine would tend to permit. To give but two (out of many possible) examples, facially neutral buffer zones around foreign embassies might be unconstitutional because pro-embassy supporters obviously tend to be less affected by (and less likely to be prosecuted under) such regulations than anti-embassy protestors.  And virtually all laws that try to regulate activity near funeral proceedings would be open to question. Over forty states have recently adopted such regulations. It is common knowledge that the vast majority of people today who want to assemble and demonstrate near funerals are members of an identifiable religious group with a distinctive, somewhat bizarre, and extremely unpopular message and point of view.

The Problems of Subjectivity and Disharmony With Other Constitutional Areas

In addition to requiring the overruling of some past cases and the invalidation of laws that are currently deemed constitutional, a change in doctrine emphasizing disparate impacts would add considerable subjectivity and indeterminacy to free speech cases. There will always be questions about both the extent of a predictable or expected disproportionate impact that is created by a law, and just how much of an impact is required to compel a conclusion that the law is content- or viewpoint-based.   For a court that eschews subjective standards (as this Court does, as evidenced by its unwillingness to recognize free exercise of religion claims against neutral laws of general applicability), it is hard to understand why increasing subjectivity and indeterminacy would be appropriate here. Free speech doctrine is complicated enough without blurring established, albeit complicated, categories.

Further, a Supreme Court decision holding that a locational regulation will, by virtue of disparate effects, be considered content- or viewpoint-based and thus trigger strict scrutiny would be anomalous and hard to reconcile with the way in which the Court considers disparate impact in other areas of constitutional law.  For instance, we can compare free speech doctrine to equal protection doctrine.  Under the Equal Protection Clause, government cannot discriminate against racial minorities (just as, under the First Amendment, it cannot discriminate against particular viewpoints.)  But in the equal protection context, a law that is formally race-neutral on its face, but that generates predictable disparate impacts along racial lines (such as a requirement of a high school diploma to be eligible for a government job) is not subject to strict scrutiny, notwithstanding that, in the real world, it tends to disadvantage racial minorities more than white persons. The Court, in the famous Washington v. Davis case in 1976, rejected strict scrutiny based on disparate racial impact, to avoid a slippery slope that would undermine the validity of far too much legislation. Think of all the laws—like flat sales taxes and bridge tolls—that have predictable disproportionate effects on poor persons, and thus on racial minorities (because of the unhappy correlation that persists between the two). All such laws would be subject to strict scrutiny under a disparate impact approach.

And in one important sense, the case for strict scrutiny for racially disparate laws is actually stronger than it is for laws that generate disparate speech effects. In the equal protection setting, if a racially disparate law is not subject to strict scrutiny, it is subject to a very deferential rationality review, which in many cases operates like a rubber stamp upholding the law. In the free speech arena, however, even laws that are not considered content- or viewpoint-based are still subject to a meaningful intermediate level of judicial scrutiny that often has real bite to it that can result in the invalidation of the law.

Conundrums Within Speech Doctrine That a Disparate Effects Approach Would Create

Moreover, a focus on disparate speech effects would create a range of doctrinal conundrums under the First Amendment itself.  Content-neutral regulations of speech serve important social functions. A particular location may be a very useful place to express a message, but it also may be a place where speech imposes serious burdens on third parties (including particularly vulnerable audiences such as patients at medical clinics or mourners at funerals), such that the speech needs to be regulated.  A multi-factor balancing test (the intermediate standard that currently governs content-neutral laws) may be the best way to take all of the relevant values and interests at stake in these cases into account. Yet the Court’s heightening of review based on disproportionate impact would tend, in effect, to read the state’s interest in restricting speech out of the picture because almost nothing passes strict scrutiny.

Another problem with increasing the rigor of the Court’s review of locational or other regulations because of their foreseeable disparate effects on speech is that this approach would send conflicting and confusing messages to lawmakers. On the one hand, under the intermediate scrutiny that is currently applied, content-neutral speech regulations are not supposed to burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the state’s interests. This suggests that content-neutral laws should be drawn narrowly to cover as limited a time, place, or manner of speech as possible to serve the state’s goals. But if a disproportionate effect approach makes narrow laws vulnerable to receiving heightened review precisely because their narrowness generates disparate effects, then legislatures are going to broaden laws as a matter of course:  The broader the scope of the law, the harder it is to find that the law disproportionately burdens any particular subject or viewpoint of speech. Thus, with courts emphasizing disproportionate effects, the state is forced to walk a constitutional tightrope and may violate the First Amendment if it deviates even a bit in either direction; if the state adopts a narrow law, the likelihood increases that the law will receive rigorous review because the law disproportionately burdens one subject or viewpoint of speech more than others, but if government broadens the law, the law is more likely to be struck down under the intermediate scrutiny test that will apply, because the law will inevitably restrict more speech than is necessary to further the state’s interests. This means that a focus on disproportionate speech effects will do more than make judicial decisions in this area more subjective and indeterminate; it will also undermine legislative discretion and flexibility in drafting and adopting laws.

We are not suggesting that there are no possible answers to any of these seeming dilemmas, or that disparate effect should never factor into any well-conceived First Amendment analytic framework.  Rather, what we are saying is that before the Court begins to travel down this road, it needs to think carefully not just about clinic-access cases, but also about a much larger swath of free speech and larger constitutional doctrine.

  • Eric Scheidler

    Interesting analysis, but you’re missing something critical. The Massachusetts law is quite unlike your example of laws banning residential pickets.

    Yes, a ban on such pickets may be reasonably foreseen to impact pro-life activists more than pro-choice activists, but it is still possible to imagine a case in which a pro-choice activists would be prohibited from conducting such a picket. And in fact, such pickets have been held in jurisdictions without such a ban. The home of my pro-life activist parents in Chicago, for example, has been the target of several such pickets.

    But it is virtually impossible to imagine any pro-choice person being restricted by the Massachusetts law. And it’s not only pro-life activists who engage in speech outside abortion clinics. Clinic staff and volunteers do, too, encouraging abortion clients to ignore the pro-life activists, enter the building and get the abortions for which they’re scheduled.

    Since the law specifically exempts employees and AGENTS of an abortion facility, it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which a pro-choice activist’s speech would be restricted, since any such person could reasonably claim to be acting as an agent of the facility — a claim which would almost certainly be affirmed by the facility managers.

    This leaves pro-life activists the only group who could possibly be affected by the law in any real-world scenario.

    Eric Scheidler
    Executive Director
    Pro-Life Action League

    • Joe22

      Thanks Eric, I have seen exactly what you state and it is obvious why it happens, 1 for the money and 2 because too many are blind to the truth about a baby being a human life from conception. Many women choose to keep their child when they find out it is a twin, the truth hits them somehow, but that is the moral issue about the killing going on there.

      I have seen women who are in turmoil over their decision stand for tens of minutes outside but where pro-life counselors must shout to be heard and the abortion workers come out and are able to discuss there case for an abortion face to face and then physically escort them in.

      Pointing out that “AGENTS” are allowed is the strongest case against the Law, because other people can pass through the area and stop to talk if they wish, it is only “Pro-Life” people that are excluded. If you have a pro-life button on you would be arrested in that area, but not a pro-choice one, or something connected to Planned Parenthood. for that matter if you where dressed as a priest or a nun or had a religious object on you would also be arrested.